Farnham's Freehold

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Does anyone have a kind word to say for "Sixth Column" or "Farnham's Freehold"? I'll try: ... as for FF, here was a privileged white male from California, a notoriously exclusionary state, trying to understand American racism in the pre-Martin Luther King era. And getting it wrong for facepalm values of wrong, so wrong he wasn't even on the right map ... but at least he wasn't ignoring it.

Farnham's Freehold is a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. A serialised version, edited by Frederik Pohl, appeared in Worlds of If magazine (July, August, October 1964). The complete version was published in novel form by G.P. Putnam later in 1964.

Farnham's Freehold is a post-apocalyptic tale, as the setup for the story is a direct hit by a nuclear weapon, which sends into the future a fallout shelter containing Farnham, his wife, son, daughter, daughter's friend, and black domestic servant. Heinlein drew on his experience in building a fallout shelter under his own house in Colorado Springs, Colorado in the 1960s.

The book is popular with survivalist groups as it combines the civil engineering and physics of fallout shelter survival with the social dynamics of "lifeboat rules," or autocratic authority under extreme conditions, a theme further explored in depth in The Number of the Beast. To paraphrase Mr. Farnham, "How do you know who is the officer in the lifeboat? The one with the gun."

Plot[edit | hide | hide all]

Hugh Farnham, a middle-aged man, holds a bridge club party for his wife Grace (an alcoholic), son Duke (a law graduate), daughter Karen, a college student, and Karen's friend Barbara. During the bridge game, Duke berates him for frightening Grace by preparing for a possible Russian nuclear attack. When the attack actually occurs, the group, along with Joe, the family's African American servant, retreat to the fallout shelter below the house.

After several distant nuclear explosions rock the shelter, Hugh and Barbara become sexually involved; after they copulate, the largest explosion of all hits the shelter. With only minor injuries, but with their bottled oxygen running low, the group decides to ensure that they can leave the shelter when necessary. After exiting through an emergency tunnel, they find themselves in a completely undamaged, semi-tropical region apparently uninhabited by humans or other sentient creatures. Several of the group speculate that the final explosion somehow forced them into an alternate dimension.

The group strives to stay alive as a pioneer family, with Hugh as the leader -- despite friction between Hugh and Duke. Karen announces that she is pregnant, and had returned home the night of the attack to tell her parents; Barbara also announces that she is pregnant, although she does not mention that her pregnancy resulted from her sexual encounter with Hugh during the attack. Karen eventually dies during her labor, due to complications, and her infant daughter follows the next day.

Grace, whose sanity has been challenged by all these events, demands that Barbara be forced from the group or she will leave. Duke convinces Hugh that he will go with Grace to ensure her safety, but before they can leave, a large aircraft appears overhead. The group is taken captive by people of African ancestry, but is spared execution when Joe intervenes by conversation with their captives' leader in French.

The group finds that it has not been transported to another world, but instead is in the distant future of their own world. A decadent but technologically advanced African culture keeps either uneducated or castrated whites as slaves. Each of the characters adapts to the sudden black/white role reversal in different and sometimes shocking ways. In the end, Hugh and Barbara fail to adjust to the new situation and attempt to escape, but are captured. Rather than execute them, Ponse, the "Lord Protector" of the house to which they have become slaves, asks them to volunteer for a time-travel experiment to send them back to their own time.

They return just prior to the original nuclear attack, and flee in Barbara's car. As they drive, they realize that while Barbara had driven a car with an automatic transmission, this car - the same car in every respect but one - has a manual transmission, and Farnham deduces that the time-travel experiment worked, but sent them into an alternate universe. They survive the war, then spend the rest of their lives trying to make sure the future they experienced does not come to pass.


Tropes used in Farnham's Freehold include:
  • After the End
  • Author Filibuster: Possibly subverted, considering the diatribes are on topics including "cannibalism" and "African colonialism in the post-WWIII remains of the USA."
  • No Need for Names: at least one of the slaves.
  • Parental Incest: Farnham's daughter mentions to him that, of the three men she's been stranded with, he's the one she'd prefer to father her child (if she weren't already pregnant just now). Her dad is completely undisturbed and in fact flattered by this.
  • People Farms: Because the new masters' menu includes "pork."
  • Persecution Flip